To Sample Or Not To Sample – Part 1
Sampling of other people’s records has become quite common these days. From its more “underground” roots back in the 90’s to the more mainstream appeal that it has today, it has definitely become a part of the culture of music. But in a way it was around before samplers were even invented. Ok, I admit that it’s a bit of a stretch but even one band doing a cover version of another band’s song has a lot in common with sampling as we know it. The new version is taking a song which is already known and most probably putting that song in a different context (change of genre in this case). Is that so dissimilar from the way that samples are used these days? To me it really isn’t. Of course there is a very different outlook on things legally but morally I feel that it’s more or less the same.
With “sampling” specifically but also, to a lesser extent, with “cover versions”, there is some argument that it is stealing, that it isn’t as creative as writing something that is 100% your own. Now I’m not sure that I agree with that 100% because there could obviously be situations where somebody samples a record, puts a big house beat behind it, loops it, filters it, and basically calls it their own. I’ve even done it myself! But when I did it there was always an intention to have a new vocal recorded over the top so that at least the sample used was added to in a musical/lyrical way and wasn’t just something that any DJ could do with a couple of CDJ-1000s.
I think that the true art of creative sampling (in the context of sample from other songs) is to always try to take a sample and make it your own. Do something with it that not only makes it more difficult to tell where the sample has come from but something that also adds something to the original sample. That could take the form of writing a new song over an obvious looped sample (one of the best known examples must be Gnarls Barkley’s sampling of the soundtrack from the 1968 film “Last Men Standing”) or it could be chopping up a sample and re-ordering it or just using small “slices” of it to create something new.
A great resource for the curious is http://www.whosampled.com as this website contains a searchable database of famous tracks that have sampled and been sampled and if you have the time to lose a few hours listening to the clips it will give you a greater insight of what is possible and in fact permissible when it comes to sampling.
The biggest problem with any kind of sampling of other songs is getting clearance. The actual process itself isn’t especially difficult as you simply have to contact the record label and publisher that own the rights to the track you are sampling and ask them for the forms required for clearing a sample. For the most part these forms will be pretty easy to complete and you will almost always have to provide a clip of the original track sampled and your new track showing the sample in use along with details of what percentage of your new track is made up of the sample. This last point can be hard to quantify exactly but a rough estimate should suffice.
What can be a bit of a stumbling block is finding out who actually owns the copyright. If you sample a record that was released in 1974 on John Smith Records it may be next to impossible to find out who actually owns the rights to that track now if John Smith Records has been shut down. Technically it is possible for an individual to own the rights to the recordings so the person you need to contact could be some eccentric millionaire holed up in a hideout in the middle of the Nevada Desert for all you know. Sadly, even if you can’t find out who owns the rights, this doesn’t count as any kind of legal defence if you push ahead with releasing the track without obtaining written clearance to do so. In cases like that the best thing to do is simply move on because risking releasing a track without clearance is a very dangerous area to get into.
There are other options though. Every year that passes there are a growing number of sample libraries on the market and they are becoming more and more diverse and eccentric as time goes on. In Part 2 of this article I will take a look at the other options for you if you are keen on getting a taste of a more “retro” track but don’t want to (or simply can’t) jump through the hoops of the sample clearance approach.
Simon Langford, author of The Remix Manual is a professional music producer and remixer, with close to ten years of experience. He has worked on over 300 remixes, and has had tracks of his own in the UK National Top 20 Singles Chart and the US Billboard Dance Chart. Simon has remixed artists including Rihanna, Robbie Williams, Sugababes, INXS, and many more. He has written a series of articles for Sound on Sound magazine on remixing.